Community Planning and Early Childhood Education
A piece by Program Coordinator, Carlie Bangs
Many times we hear and discuss how “it takes a village”. Well, that’s because in many communities it does take broad understanding of early childhood education and collaboration among key stakeholders in order to see impact. One nearby successful initiative comes from Boulder, CO where they looked at their community assets and strengths to involve children of all ages, beginning at 4 years old, to work in community development.
Growing Up Boulder is an initiative that was formed in 2009 as a partnership between the City of Boulder, Boulder Valley School District, and the University of Colorado’s Program in Environmental Design. The child friendly initiative works directly with Boulder Journey School, a Reggio Emilia preschool. Teachers at this school have strong beliefs of democratic process among its students, gaining an appreciation for the outdoors, as well as children’s involvement in their local community. Through this process, Boulder Journey School students (ages 4 and 5) were able to influence public open space in Boulder.
Students contributed to the redesign of Boulder’s civic area, a public space in the city’s downtown area, which was being redesigned because of the increased flood risk through the corridor. Children from Boulder Journey School were brought to the open space and provided green and red frames, and a camera to assess the space as it was. They were encouraged to take photos of what they liked with a green frame, and what they didn’t like with the red frame. Students brought what they learned about the design of the space back to their class to create a life size civic park with blocks and stuffed animals. The Boulder Lead City Planner even participated by coming to see their design.
Children 0-18 years old influenced adult planners, council members, and community members in the design of this public space. While children are often forgotten throughout the community development and planning process, they are actually the perfect community planners as they are allowed to think about possibilities rather than restraints like budget, liability, time. Of course, some children wanted candy parks and spray guns, but there were also huge takeaways. It was noticed that children have a biological need for nature and it shows up in their design. Children felt that nature must be nearby and accessible as they can no longer venture blocks from their home to explore a nearby creek. Throughout the process, they found children often include nonhuman species in their design, all living creatures not cars, egos, or corporations.
They found that children exhibit high levels of empathy when considering use of the space by people and animals- and insects! After exploring and assessing the civic park area, the Boulder Journey Students had some concerns about the insects they encountered. Back in the preschool classroom, students researched the different features of insects and created costumes of insects including antennae and wings. Teachers facilitated this learning and inquiry by projecting large insect shadows on a wall so that children could experience the scale at which humans appear to insects. The students’ recommendations showed concern that insects might be hurt by visitors on trails and wanted to protect the insects and their homes. No matter the age, Growing Up Boulder has found that desires for nature protection and enhancement emerge across projects and ages, in early childhood and beyond.
While it may sound outlandish and a little crazy to include our youngest citizens in designing and planning our community, a city friendly to children is city friendly to ALL. Safe sidewalks serve the needs of individuals in wheelchairs, as well as the new mom wanting to get out of the house with a stroller and her young children. Frequent and affordable bus routes help teens access their community, family access resources like the local library, as well as adults who want to age in place. In many ways, children are an indicator species for the entire community as they can’t jump in a car to get where they want to go or purchase expensive meals. A community that serves the needs of children, will also serve the needs of many other minority groups within a community. We also can’t forget the benefits a program like this does to children in our community. To participate in large scale planning, their education is integrated into real life situations, empathy and process are naturally learned through community activism.